Once upon a time, large families were considered a blessing. There are many reasons why everyone benefits from a large family – including the younger siblings. An ode to older brothers and sisters.
“Here,” my older sister A said, dropping to her knee next to the chain link fence and rummaging in the tall, scrubby grass. She popped a black rock the size of a quarter in my hand. “Hold that.”
“What is it?”
“Coal.” She rose and dusted the knees of her corduroy pants off, pointing to the railroad tracks behind the fence. Fuel oil trucks belched thick smoke as they trundled out of the lot of Patterson Fuel Oil. “The trains used to run by coal, and Patterson had a coal depot here. You can still find pieces near the tracks. If we could go up close to the tracks, like we used to, we could find more. But since they electrified the tracks they put the fences up.”
Snow was in the forecast, a monster nor’easter that we hoped would mean school closures, a snow day, and lots of sledding and snowman building. Hence the search for coal – what good is a snowman without coal for eyes and mouth?
Where did you find coal in the early 1970s? By then, all the houses in our Long Island neighborhood had already converted to fuel oil. Even Pattersons, which had started life as a coal and ice depot, had converted to all fuel oil by the 1970s.
Yet memories in Floral Park were long and we lived with the longest memory around – my grandmother who had moved to Floral Park after her marriage in 1917. She knew every street, every house, every family. My mother too had grown up in Floral Park and had remembered the best places to find coal. My older sister, hearing about the upcoming snow storm, had grasped me by the mittened hand and walked with me two blocks away to Patterson’s Fuel Oil in search of lumps of coal for the best ever snowman.
And build him we did. I have an old Polaroid photo of A and me, posed next to the ultimate snowman with coal eyes and mouth and buttons, a knitted scarf adorning his grinning self. I’d share it here, but A has threatened me with voodoo dolls (well, she just asked, but I can picture the voodoo doll) if I shared the picture of her, so you’ll have to imagine it.
Older sisters and brothers teach us so much. For those of you growing up as only children, I pity you. You won’t have the benefit of siblings who know where to find coal for snowmen or who sew ballgowns for Barbie dolls.
I’m the youngest of five, and close to all of my siblings. As we’ve grown older, we’ve each grown into our own persons, with different attitudes, beliefs, and hobbies. But I’m still very close to my sister, M, the oldest of the clan. We share the same love of gardening and cats, photography and cooking. She may be a college professor while I am a marketing manager and a writer, but we are bound by similar tastes.
Raiding Record Collections
One way in which older siblings shape their younger family members is by sharing their tastes in music, fashion and art. Take music, for example.
My sister M grew up in the 1970s. John Denver, Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkle and Renaissance were her go-to bands. I’d sneak into her room and listen to her albums while she was at work, sometimes getting into trouble for borrowing them and forgetting to return them.
A, however, was into the new wave scene in the 1980s, and when I entered high school she was in college and heading off to the famous nightclubs of New York City and Long Island. She danced to the Thompson Twins, Culture Club, Berlin, Soft Cell, Bowie. She bought 45s and kept WLIR, the local new wave radio station, on the kitchen radio as soon as she came home from school, supplanting my parent’s addiction to 1010 WINS and WOR with an afternoon filled with music and laughter. I’ll never forget cleaning up after dinner with my brother S and my sister A as Devo’s “Whip It” came onto the radio. My brother and sister slipped pairs of sunglasses on, grabbed pots from the drainboard, and created an impromptu dance that had us all roaring with laughter.
Brothers are equally as important as sisters in mentoring their younger siblings. My older brothers taught me to be brave. S, of the aforementioned colander on the head and the Whip It dance, once found me crying in the kitchen after waiting fruitlessly on the icy bus stop for over half an hour. He made me hot chocolate and walked me to my elementary school, calmly explaining to the teacher that the bus never came and making the scary moment all right.
My other brother J was equally protective. One winter’s day, he headed out with his hockey gear slung over his shoulder. I didn’t know where he was headed, but I headed over to the town playground. To my surprise, he was playing ice hockey with his friends in the flooded basketball court. In those days, the town purposely flooded the basketball courts in the dead of winter so that the ice skaters could have their turn. I hung out by the fence, watching with obvious admiration. I didn’t have skates, but my brother grabbed me by the wrist and, laughing, glided over the ice, me in my yellow rubber boats and he skating effortlessly around the cones set up for the hockey game. For one fleeting moment, I felt like an Olympic skater, a princess, even in my dorky dark green nylon coat and yellow rubber boats.
We were packed into our small Floral Park house with every room taken by at least one or two people. My parents shared the downstairs bedroom, and my grandmother lived with us in the second downstairs bedroom. An upstairs room was divided to make two rooms, one for the two boys, the other for the three girls.
Family legend holds that when my mother was pregnant with me, the boys and girls were in a fierce battle over whether Mom would have a boy or a girl. It had nothing to do with happiness over their new sibling. Each wanted the promised bunk beds that would be added to the room.
Eight people in one house, living on my dad’s salary, meant that money was tight. Christmas meant a live tree, two presents each, and a bit of candy in our stockings. My mother baked all sorts of goodies and aunts, great aunts and uncles would flock to the house, filling our dining room to capacity and beyond. The most we ever sat around that table was 22 people with several kids seated at a card table tucked behind my mother.
One year, I got the bright idea to make Christmas presents for everyone. I think I was around eight or nine and had just learned to knit. My older brother, S, loved to ski, so I tried to knit him a scarf. Unfortunately, I gave up after knitting a small square, so I tied strings to it and wrapped it up.
“What is it?” he asked, puzzled at the gold knitted square.
“A nose warmer!”
We have pictures of him wearing that nose warmer on Christmas morning. It’s still a story that makes us laugh.
Paths Well Worn
High school and college found us all going our separate ways. Except for college, where I ended up attending the same school as my older sisters had attended. My aunt taught there. We had scholarships. We went.
It’s hard to attend college where your great-aunt’s picture smiles down from the Board Room walls; she was the second president. My aunt taught in the biology department. M had been a nursing student and A, a biology major. Heck, even my cousin worked in the fundraising department and another cousin had attended as a music and computer major. Talk about all in the family – you couldn’t spit without hitting a family member in that college.
I’ll never forget walking up to pay for my lunch in the student dining hall. The woman behind the cash register beamed at me as if she knew me, then her look turned embarrassed.
“Oh, I thought you had graduated.”
“That’s my older sister….A.”
“No, I’m mixing you up with a nursing student who I was fond of.”
“Oh, that was M.”
And so it went. I had already heard the stories from A of which professors to take and which to avoid. As in elementary school, where I trod in the paths well-worn by my older siblings, college was a similar experience.
Most families today consist of one, maybe two children. Finding families with five, six or more kids is unheard of. Yet on the street where I grew up, five kids weren’t unusual.
There was a real, honest to goodness family named Brady with six kids; they were all girls, or else it would have been too much of a coincidence. Mrs. Brady gave my mother their old clothes and I didn’t even know you shopped for clothes in a store until I was getting ready to go to first grade. Up until first grade, I ‘shopped’ by rummaging through a huge old refrigerator box in the attic filled with my older sisters’ clothes and cast-offs from the Bradys.
Two other families on the block had four, five or more kids; the only child across the street was both envied and pitied. Envied, because she had more Fischer-Price Little People toys in her basement playroom than I had ever seen outside of a toy store. Pitied, because she didn’t have a pack running with her, sisters and brothers, friends for life, showing her the way.
Big Families, Big Hearts, Big Lessons
Even on television, big families were the norm. We were watching reruns with my nephew when The Waltons came on. He’s an only child.
“How come there are so many people?”
“Because that’s how it was years ago.” I explained again that I had five siblings, and my grandmother had lived with us too.
“But where did you all sleep?”
“But your house didn’t have five bedrooms.”
His jaw dropped. “You mean you didn’t have your own room?”
“Nope. I didn’t even have my own dresser until I was nine years old and my sister M moved out. My clothes were kept in a drawer in my mother’s dresser.”
“But…but…” he couldn’t grasp such a life.
“You don’t need your own room,” I said gently. “Living with so many people teaches you valuable lessons. Sharing. Taking turns. Being patient and respectful and kind to each other.” I left out how we’d all pile into the living room on each other after dinner, beating each other up, or the horrible fights A and I got into when we were younger.
There’s something to be said about the lessons older siblings teach us. Today’s kids, many of whom are growing up as only kids or only one of two, have their own rooms. They have their own televisions and computers; we had one television for eight people, so sharing and compromise were the norm, rather than the exception.
We shared two bathrooms among eight people, too, so we learned to be considerate of each other. Folding up our towels and putting the soap back where it belonged wasn’t just kindness; you didn’t want your brother or sister to throw their dirty towel onto your clean one, so you made sure to put yours back so there’d be no excuse to do anything to your stuff.
We made do with less. Two Christmas presents, one consisting of nightgowns, socks or underwear, was the norm. We wanted more, of course; I’d be lying if I said we were content with that. But most of our friends experienced the same kind of Christmas, so it was all okay.
There was always an older brother or sister to ask questions of and to learn what to do. If I was going to a party and wasn’t sure what to wear, A or M could tell me. If I hadn’t learned to skate, J was there to at least make sure I didn’t feel left out.
Oh, I know that smaller families have always existed. In olden days, mothers may have given birth to many children, with only a few surviving into adulthood. My own father had only a brother; my mother had two sisters. But the grandparents in my family were from broods of four, eight or more kids; there was a crowd at every holiday, a wedding every year, and a willing hand and heart to help out if families needed it.
Today, our smaller family size is often by choice. We choose smaller families to give our kids the best of everything. But I wonder if we are really giving them the best of everything. A nose warmer, a skating afternoon, or hunting for coal may not sound like much, but then again, kids don’t need much to be happy.
This post was originally published on Medium. (c) 2018 Jeanne Grunert.